The award-winning 2013 movie 12 Years a Slave about Solomon Northrup, a free man of color from New York who was sold into slavery in Louisiana, brought unprecedented attention to the history of free people of color in the United States. It is somewhat ironic that Northrup ended up in Louisiana, for it had one of the largest and most significant populations of free people of color. Those interested in exploring the history of this group can now do so in a recently-released, free online resource available at http://www.lib.lsu.edu/special/fpoc/.
“Free People of Color in Louisiana: Revealing an Unknown Past,” is a collaborative digital project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities that brings together and provides access to over 30,000 pages of family and personal papers, business records, and public documents from the LSU Libraries’ Special Collections, the Louisiana State Museum Historical Center, the Historic New Orleans Collection, Tulane University’s Louisiana Research Collection, and New Orleans Public Library. LSU Libraries received the $194,152 two-year grant in 2013; it will conclude at the end of April 2015.
“Relatively few collections of papers from free families of color survive in archives in Louisiana, nor are they numerous in archives elsewhere in the United States,” said Curator of Manuscripts and Project Co-Director Tara Laver. “The most extensive collections of family papers for free people of color held by Louisiana repositories are, in fact, split across institutions. Digitizing these records has allowed us to reunite them virtually, making these materials accessible in one place for the use of historians, descendants of free people of color, genealogists, students, teachers, and anyone who is interested in this important aspect of our nation’s history.”
Free people of color were individuals of African descent who lived in colonial and antebellum America and were born free or had escaped the bonds of enslavement before slavery was abolished in 1865. By 1810, free people of color composed 29 percent of New Orleans’s population, a demographic unmatched by any other U.S. city or territory. Baton Rouge, St. Landry Parish, and the Cane River area near Natchitoches, Louisiana also had significant numbers of free people of color. Inhabiting the space between slavery and freedom made their ambiguous and incongruent status one of the most talked about “problems” of the first half of the nineteenth century, yet their history has understandably been largely overshadowed by the harsh story of slavery in America.
But indeed there are many fascinating stories to be discovered among the documents found in the digital collection. Bellazaire Meullion, daughter of a formerly enslaved son of a French officer and a slave woman, operated a plantation on Bayou Teche and filed claims against the U.S. government for property seized during the Civil War. Her brother Donat and other male family members became active in Republican state politics almost immediately after blacks gained the vote. Successful businessman, barber, diarist, and plantation owner William Johnson of Natchez, Mississippi, was murdered over a property dispute; his wife Ann eventually assumed management of the family’s business interests, and their daughters became teachers in the African American community in Natchez. White New Orleans planter John McDonogh emancipated many of his slaves, who were able to purchase their freedom, and arranged for their settlement in Liberia, from where they wrote him about their lives and experiences in the colony. As architects, builders, and entrepreneurs, the Soulié family contributed to the rich architectural history of New Orleans and helped build and sustain the community of free people of color in the city. These individuals’ histories are largely told through family or personal papers. Public records such as emancipation petitions provide insight into individual free people of color’s experiences before they were free and the circumstances around their emancipation. Indenture agreements help understand the participation of free people of color in skilled trades such as masonry and carpentry and the associated and supporting network of sponsors and craft masters, many also free people of color.
“These are just a few examples of the possibilities to research and explore,” said Project Librarian Jessica Mlotkowski. “Uniting these papers digitally shows how diverse the lives of free people of color truly were—across families, places, and time periods. Most exciting of all, the collection provides access to their own words in an unprecedented way.”
For additional information about the project contact Laver at firstname.lastname@example.org.